FIH Series Finals 2019: With new coach Graham Reid at saddle, India look to shrug off familiar frailties in quest for redemption

Regaining control of Indian hockey’s destiny may seem slightly far-fetched, but it is not totally out of reach. The path appears rocky, with yet another foundation now being laid by new coach Graham Reid. But the Australian great and former coach may feel skills come easy to this Indian outfit. But it’s the structuring and adhering to it that may, at times, drive him to extreme frustration. Discipline, self-control and sticking to a ‘coaching methodology’ hasn’t been our strength and 2018 is a testament to that.

Quite amazingly, the city that has adopted the sport, Bhubaneswar, is recovering from challenging times — cyclone Fani lashed the Odisha capital on 2 May. It left devastation in its wake; uprooted trees, collapsed roofs and walls. Bhubaneswar showed it didn’t have a glass chin as it took the storm head on and is now bravely rebuilding.

 FIH Series Finals 2019: With new coach Graham Reid at saddle, India look to shrug off familiar frailties in quest for redemption

India start favourites in the eight-team event. Twitter@TheHockeyIndia

Indian hockey has a similar story — beleaguered, unable to take the pressure, it slipped at crucial moments to not only shift momentum to the opponents but also dig themselves into a hole. The semi-final defeat to Malaysia at the Asian Games and the quarter-final defeat to Holland at home in the World Cup, were examples of matches slipping away, not because of a lack of form but simply lost focus and not being able to play a strategic game when the moment begged for it.

Maybe, the city’s courage would rub off on the team when India take on Russia in the opening game of the FIH Men’s Series Finals, an eight-nation tournament that is the first step to qualifying for 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. India have been clubbed in Pool A with Russia, Poland, and Uzbekistan. In Pool B are South Africa, Japan, USA, and Mexico.

India are ranked fifth and the next highest ranked team is South Africa at 16. Japan (18), Poland (21), Russia (22), USA (25), Mexico (39) and Uzbekistan (43) are ranked much lower.

It is almost a given that India would play the final on 15 June. And if things go right, it could just be an India vs Japan final. The tournament for India, is, however, not about that. A young team needs to come together after the topsy-turvy display last year. Somewhere the decision of not playing the Pro-League will hurt India. That lot has played such high-intensity hockey that India have almost slipped a few years back. Not only the competition, but the players learning and adjusting to worldwide changes in terms of the gameplan, strategies, and tactics would have been something they were exposed to every week. In a way, India dropped down to Division 2.

Rebuilding is something that Indian hockey does every two years. New faces, new coaches and even captaincy changes have hurt the progress of the sport. Hopefully, this is a team that has all the attributes that a coach needs to go all the way to 2022, the next World Cup. In between, lies the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. It’s a tough road. But not at all impossible.

Graham Reid will take his own time. One, honestly, shouldn’t count those two defeats against Australia at Perth in a Test series as Reid’s ‘report card’. It was too soon, and Reid needs plenty of time. As a coach, he would exactly know where the issues are. But can he respond fast to be able to pinpoint it and eradicate the issue? At this point, Reid believes it is the lack of finishing that makes it tough for India.

At his first press conference in Bhubaneswar, he said, “As a team we need to improve in a lot of areas. I have talked about it in our tackling, in our pressing, and finishing our PCs, those areas we need to get better at and that’s what we are working towards.”

Consistency has never been a hallmark either. And that affects finishing. At the 2017 HWL Semi-Finals in London, defeats against Malaysia and Canada so affected confidence that even strikes in front of the opposition goal were either hit out or pushed against the post. The nature of the beast, in this case, India, needs to be understood. Otherwise, try and decipher the fourth place at the Commonwealth Games, second spot at the Champions Trophy, third spot at the Asian Games, joint winners at the Asian Champions Trophy and then the sixth spot at the World Cup.

The numbers don’t add up. Or at best, they can be termed as a team that cannot make the moments count. In the Champions Trophy, India had Australia on the mat in the fourth quarter but didn’t push the dagger in. The same was the case against Malaysia in the Asian Games semi-final — chances squandered and then when the intelligent defence was the need, India back-tracked and blinked first. Against Holland in the World Cup, the midfield should have woken up in the third quarter. But India lost focus and conceded PCs.

Not crossing the line has been a recurring theme. Try and understand the 2018 Azlan Shah final against South Korea which could have been closed in the second and third quarter. But dragged on till the shoot-out and from there on, Korea wrote the winning script.

Even if Graham is not too worried about the FIH Men’s Finals here, he doesn’t show it. “The strategy for me is about treating every game as it comes, and every game is important. To me that is an important step and it doesn’t matter whether we are playing Russia or Uzbekistan or whoever. The important part is that we prepare as though it is the final.”

Reid’s vision is about the process. “My vision? Is to be a better team to be in the end than they are now. And if we focus on the process rather than worrying about the outcome, the outcome will come if we focus on the process.”

Most coaches have spoken along these lines and they include Roelant Oltmans and Terry Walsh, two who have had the maximum impact on the Indian team in terms of results and decision making among players. Reid is a fresh face for the Indian team. And it will be good if he stamps his authority quickly. Players listen to a strong voice; they listen to someone who has played at the highest level and they understand innovation.

In the past 16 years, we have had ten foreign coaches. Players are adaptable and they become like moons orbiting around the coach, each creating his own power centre. That has led to issues which may not have been spoken about but has been visible in various tug-of-wars fought between senior players. Graham needs to stem that and focus on bringing hockey back as a credible sport in terms of performance and winning percentage.

A foreign coach once said, “Indian players have the skill, but do they have the intelligence to understand the flow of the game?” These are many of the questions that Reid would confront. He may not acknowledge it publicly and rightfully so. But like a light mist, early in the morning, it hangs over the Indian team.

The Indian captain Manpreet Singh is the OS (operating system) around which the Indian team functions. He said, “If you would have ever talked with Graham Reid, you would have seen that he is very friendly and smiles a lot. He is very comfortable with the player and so are players comfortable with him. He always mixes up with all the players. If any player faces any problem or if any problem occurs on the ground, he always talks with them openly. He explains every player affectionately. He says that we need every player on the ground so if any player does not perform, he always motivates them and tries to bring him in the game.”

Not much is known about Russia and a few other teams. “Talking about Russia and other teams, we have not seen them much so don’t know how they will play,” said Manpreet. “Recently we have heard that they played the match with Belgium and gave just one PC in the entire match. So, we come to know that their defence must have been good. No team should be underestimated. If we miss and the other avail the chance, they will score good.”

On paper, this Indian team can work their magic in the tournament and rightfully claim the top spot. With Sreejesh and Krishan Pathak, the team is secure in goal. In the defence, we have Harmanpreet Singh, Birendra Lakra, Amit Rohidas, Surender Kumar, Varun Kumar, and Gurinder Singh. The midfield is talented and for Reid, a midfielder himself, it should be exciting to work with these lads — Manpreet, Sumit, Hardik, Nilakanta and Vivek Sagar Prasad. Ramandeep Singh's return from an injury after almost nine months is a good sign and along with Akashdeep, Simranjeet, Mandeep and Gursahibjit Singh, it should be a strong force.

The 2018 Asian Games semi-final loss still rankles. “If we would have won Asian Games, we would not have to qualify for this round,” said Manpreet. But that hurt can be channelised. Players of the 2008 team that couldn’t qualify for the Beijing Olympics, still feel the pain; the only time an Indian hockey team didn’t play the Olympic Games. Indian hockey cannot afford that anymore.

“We are focusing on finishing,” said Manpreet. “Finishing means when we are in the opponent’s circle and get a chance, we hit a goal, 100 percent. Our focus is to either hit a goal or create a PC. We need to bring improvement in this, and we are doing it. So, I feel that in this tournament we won’t lag in this.”

Ironically, the last time India played Russia was at the 2008 Olympic qualifier in Santiago, Chile where India won 8-0. Out of 26 matches, India have won 12, drawn 6 and lost 8. These numbers also include the matches against the former USSR which is now Russia.

Reid’s boys or should we call them men, need to show more ambition and less brittleness at the back. Players need to be like actors, self-possessed and always looking to dominate the stage; in the next ten days, that’s exactly what we might see from this Indian side.

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Updated Date: Jun 06, 2019 09:38:55 IST